"We Now Know"

One of the many criticisms of the Catholic Faith to emerge in Western culture since the Enlightenment is the recurrent claim that the Church is "priest-ridden". One needn't look hard in our media to find people who speak of the Faith as though it were a form of Mind Control wielded by a priestly caste bent on keeping the hoi polloi intimidated by shibboleths and taboos. Many people have the idea that to become Catholic is to agree to a monolithic conformity with discourse controlled by a small clique of clerics who tell us what may and may not be thought at every turn, while to be secular is to open oneself to a world of infinite variety and possibility.

This notion, however, is challenged nearly everyday, not by the Vatican, but by the New York Times. Here, for instance, is a piece by Dorion Sagan from the June 21, 1998 Times called "Gender Specifics: Why Women Aren't Men." In it, we discover various salient observations. First, of course, is the standard put down of the Judeo-Christian tradition: "Western thought about sex -- from the story of Eve to Aristotle's belief that girl babies arise from cooler sperm -- has been tainted by the notion that the female is a kind of imperfect or unfinished male." A moment's consideration of this sentence raises far more questions than it answers. How exactly does the story of Eve imply that women are imperfect or unfinished males? If it does, does the story of Adam take the more complimentary view that men are perfectly finished dirt clods? Is Western thought alone in taking a skewed view of woman? (It is, after all, the East which gave the world foot-binding, the geisha system and, the present practice of female infanticide endemic in China.). But let us not demand too much of this sentence, which is, after all, primarily there in order to establish the ambience of scientific rationalism vs. obscurantist superstition.

Yet curiously after this brief pooh-poohing of a caricatured Judeo-Christian tradition, Sagan begins charting the history of "scientific" attitudes toward women, a history that does little to reinforce the dogma that Science is the unalloyed Liberator of Thought. For example, Sagan quotes Dr. Rudolf Virchow, a famous 19th Century German doctor who believed that "Woman is a pair of ovaries with a human being attached, whereas man is a human being furnished with a pair of testes." Over against this astounding artifact of 19th Century Science, Sagan then notes the more recent feminist counter-assertion that "women can do anything men can do." But all this background has only been leading up to the moment Sagan drops a world-shaking bombshell: for it turns out, in distinction from both these theories, that "modern science" is demonstrating "women can do some things better, that they have many biological and cognitive advantages over men. Then again, there are some things that women don't do as well."

Stop the presses! Science now knows what anybody with an ounce of common sense has known since the dawn of time! It has come dangerously close to recognizing that Dr. Virchow held what would have been technically termed "heretical opinions" by the 19th Century Catholic Church (since the 19th Century Church was bound by that harsh obscurantist, St. Paul, to believe "in Christ Jesus there is neither male nor female."). It has come within shouting distance of the primitive myth which tells us "In the image God created he man; male and female created he them." It has even discovered that feminist dogmas of absolute egalitarianism (which the Church also criticizes) arise, not from open inquiry, nor from a hard look at the evidence, but from an a priori philosophy which it seeks to impose on all men and women in the teeth of reality.

But what writers like Sagan have not done is recognize the wonderfully funny arrogance of speaking as though a thing cannot be known until "modern science" tells us it is okay to know it. It is this hilarious arrogance which once prompted Al Gore to declare that "we now know" fathers play an important role in the lives of their children--an observation akin to saying "we now know" rain falls from the sky. And it is this hilarious arrogance which guarantees that, until such short-sighted contempt for the common experience of those who live outside the priestly precincts of Science can be got over, the "scientific" complaints against a Tradition which, for all its shortcomings, produced trifles like the university, science and the concepts of personal freedom and dignity, will ring rather hollow.

Copyright 2001 - Mark P. Shea